The most famous stop motion studio in the world -- Aardman Animations -- is poised and ready for even greater success. Wendy Jackson Hall reports.
In the 28 years since its humble beginnings (Peter Lord and David Sproxton made their first films with a super-8 camera), Bristol, U.K.-based Aardman Animations has become the most famous stop-motion animation studio in the world, with three Oscars under its belt and a 300-person payroll (including freelancers).
In his introduction to the 1998 book Creating 3D Animation: The Aardman Book of Filmmaking, Lord, who is co-directing the studio's first feature film, says, "As Aardman got bigger and more established, we discovered that we were not just individuals whistling in the dark but part of a scattered and formless community of filmmakers in Britain and worldwide. The big pleasure for me is the feeling I get of being in a community of artists." Its "creator-driven," "artist-run" approach has been a key to success for Aardman -- still a privately-owned company. This approach has allowed the company to maintain its creative integrity, while the success of properties like Wallace and Gromit have afforded the liquidity it needs to remain selective about projects and to maintain high production values. Here's a look at what Aardman is doing in various areas:
The newest frontier for Aardman is the feature film arena, which they are tackling in a big way. Shooting in an additional facility (about 10 minutes away from the original studio) dedicated to feature work, Peter Lord and Nick Park are directing Chicken Run, an adventure tale about two chickens, Rocky (Mel Gibson) and Ginger (Julia Sawalha), trying to escape captivity from a farm in 1950s northern England. Production will wrap in March, and the film will be released by DreamWorks in U.S. theaters on June 23, 2000.
In October 1999, DreamWorks announced its plan to distribute Aardman's next four features, a bold move considering that box office numbers on Chicken Run are still months away. What gives them such confidence in Aardman? "They do have a pretty terrific track record," says David Lipman, a DreamWorks production executive in charge of the Aardman films, noting that the 60-minute rough cut of the movie so far has tested extremely well. "They are supremely talented storytellers," adds Lipman. The deal creates a stop-motion animation arm for DreamWorks, complementing its two other feature animation units: CGI films like Shrek being produced at PDI and the traditional films like The Road to El Dorado being created in-house at DreamWorks Feature Animation.
The next feature in the Aardman pipeline is an adaptation of the Aesop fable, The Tortoise and the Hare, to be directed by Richard Golezsowski, creator of Rex the Runt. Other projects in development include a Wallace and Gromit feature, but the characters may make it to TV or into another short first, says Michael Rose, executive producer of the features and head of film and TV production at Aardman, who says the goal is to release a feature every two years or so.
With all of this feature film activity, one might assume that the whole company has shifted its focus in that direction. But Aardman is not only continuing to work in other areas, it is expanding.
Aardman has plenty going on in television, the area where the company first started in the 1970s with The Amazing Adventures of Morph for BBC. The studio is currently in pre-production on new episodes of the continuing series Rex the Runt, which will be delivered to BBC in early 2001 and is being available to international broadcasters through Aardman. Also in production is Angry Kid, a 26-episode batch of one-minute shorts directed by Darren Walsh, using a technique (pixilation of actors wearing animated masks) he developed for the 1997 short film Owzat. There are several more projects on the development slate at Aardman, including Rabbits, a kids show directed by Sam Fell, and based on a pilot presented at the Cartoon Forum. It will be available for worldwide broadcast in fall 2001.
Over the years, Aardman has produced over two dozen short films, a practice which has spawned many properties that have gone on to other areas. "Shorts are terribly important for us for developing new ideas, new talent and new techniques," says Rose. To fully exploit this library of shorts, Aardman has joined forces with AtomFilms, which is distributing the entire catalog of Aardman shorts on-line and through traditional media sales such as TV and airlines. In January, AtomFilms launched The Aardman Observer, a unique "3D newspaper" Web environment that showcases Aardman's classics such as Creature Comforts, Adam and Rex the Runt as well as more recent films like Humdrum. Liz Keynes, Head of Rights and Licensing at Aardman says, "The work we are doing with AtomFilms is as much a chronicle of our output over the last 20 years as it is a marketing tool. The Internet is the only medium which allows audiences the flexibility to trace the development of our film-making techniques in this way, as well as providing the most personal and interactive viewing experience for our films."
Aardman will continue to produce shorts, and currently has several in development. In addition to developing and financing these "studio shorts," Aardman encourages staff to use the facilities to create independent projects and animation tests during off-hours.
Commercials have been a bread and butter industry throughout the years for Aardman which has produced over 100 spots for clients such as American Express, Burger King, Cadbury's, Guinness, Lipton and the London Zoo. With the success of campaigns like the Chevron cars series, Aardman continues to grow in the commercial arena, producing 15-20 spots per year, with directors often crossing over from television and short film projects.
A quick visit to the Aardmarket, Aardman's on-line store, will reveal a wealth of licensed Aardman product, mostly bearing the Wallace and Gromit brand, including apparel, plush, timepieces, toys, stationary and pens, magnets, CD-Roms, books, linens, mousepads, figurines and videos and DVDs. In preparation for the release of Chicken Run, DreamWorks Consumer Products is literally counting its chickens before they hatch, with its full-scale L&M campaign tied to the release of the film.
Aardman continues to evolve and explore new areas. Training continues to be of key importance as the studio grows. Rose says their training scheme is expanding to include editorial, camera and storyboarding as well as animation and modelmaking. In fact, Aardman has found such a shortage of storyboard artists in Bristol, the studio has been using storyboard artists at DreamWorks, many of whom are originally from the UK, to fill in the gaps. The company is also investigating original Internet animation as a new media. Asked where the studio will be doing in ten years, Rose stresses the studio's goal of adaptability, "We want to remain flexible, we don't want to become fossilized. The world is changing fast, but one thing we can be certain of is that there will be new opportunities." Wendy Jackson Hall is an independent animator, educator, writer and consultant specializing in animation. Her articles have been published in Animation Journal, Animation Magazine, ASIFA News, the Hollywood Reporter and Variety, as well as Animation World, where she was associate editor until 1998.